Jeremy Hunt should be ashamed of this despicable attack on NHS staff

Jeremy Hunt Mental Health NHS
Steve Topple

On Friday 14 July, a court handed down a judgement summing up the state of our NHS. It ruled that NHS staff owed a private company £39,000. All because of austerity, and because Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt holds NHS workers in such contempt that he refuses to listen to their pleas for help.

Outrageous treatment

French private parking firm Indigo brought the case against the NHS workers, saying more than 70 staff at the University Hospital of Wales (UHW) had unpaid parking tickets. Cardiff and Vale University Health Board made the arrangements with Indigo in April 2016 which made parking fines legally enforceable. This board gets its operational funding from the Labour-controlled Welsh government, which in turn gets money from the Tory-controlled government in Westminster. In 2008, the scrapping of hospital car parking charges in Wales was announced, apart from in cases where external contracts were already in place. And although many Welsh hospital car parks are now free of charge, the UHW’s is not – because of a “historical private finance initiative” due to expire in 2018.

NHS workers had refused to pay the fines, in a protest over the lack of parking for staff at the hospital. Currently, UHW has 6,000 staff but only 1,800 parking spaces. And NHS workers have to pay £1.05 a day to park on site, or find a space away from the hospital.

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Each of Indigo’s tickets is worth a fine of £128. And one nurse alone could reportedly owe £150,000. Campaigners and staff had hoped that the court would rule in their favour. Early reports in the media indicated that staff had 100,000 tickets, meaning the amount owed to Indigo was £12.8m. This was later retracted, but the implication from the court case is that Indigo could bring action against more NHS staff at UHW.

But judge Clare Coates at Cardiff Civil Justice Centre agreed with Indigo, ordering the staff to pay the £39,000 in fines plus £29,000 in costs.

“Broken” staff selling their homes

The Mirror reported that one nurse put in a Facebook post:

We are probably going to have to sell our family home. I have decided to leave the NHS. I cannot continue working for someone who doesn’t support their employees.

Sue Prior has been campaigning on behalf of the UHW staff, after the hospital restored partial sight in her two children’s eyes. She said of the ruling:

It’s horrendous. Some of [the staff] are broken. They’re scared stiff, petrified, they feel sick. This affects everyone from cleaners to doctors… I had to help. Without those people and the NHS my children would be blind…

One nurse described how she had to park 20-25 minutes away from the hospital. Which meant it made her working day 45 minutes to an hour longer.

But this is not the first time Indigo has brought court proceedings against NHS staff.

In March 2017, care assistant Robert O’Brien quit his NHS job after Indigo slapped 28 parking tickets worth over £800 on him in the space of four months. He said he “loved” his job, but the “stress” of Indigo’s treatment of him meant he “just couldn’t take it anymore”.

A history of despicable behaviour 

And in January, Indigo threatened NHS cardiology specialist nurse Elizabeth Martindale with court action after she refused to pay a £65 parking fine. The nurse of 40 years disputed the case because her staff parking permit had blown off her window at the time of the ticket being issued.

Indigo has also been criticised for above-inflation hikes in car parking charges; for example, raising them by 7.5% in two years at Dundee’s Ninewells Hospital.

The UHW case comes after a sustained campaign by NHS staff, the Labour Party and supporters to scrap parking charges for NHS staff altogether. But Hunt and the government have chosen to ignore it. And he also ignored a petition on the subject signed by over 135,000 people. Also, in 2015, Labour MP Yvette Cooper tabled a bill to scrap parking charges for carers. But the government refused to change the law.

A pitiful response

The Canary contacted both Indigo and the UHW for comment. But none was received at the time of publication. Indigo told The Mirror:

In April last year, Cardiff and Vale University Health Board and Indigo agreed a new set of measures to improve car parking on the University Hospital of Wales site. As a gesture of goodwill towards car park users, parking charge notices issued up to the end of March 2016 were cancelled. In addition, the cost of a PCN (Parking Charge Notice) was reduced to £10, if paid within 14 days. Despite this, a number of people refused to pay for parking at the site. They also ignored the resulting PCNs and declined to use the formal appeals process.

A spokesperson for UHW told The Mirror:

The vast majority of over 98% of staff comply with the parking regulations. It is disappointing that a few people have chosen to refuse to co-operate with the contractors Indigo Parking Services UK and have chosen to pursue this through the courts. All staff and others visiting University Hospital Wales are encouraged to comply with the parking regulations in order for us to keep the site, safe, free- flowing and allow access to emergency vehicles and vital health services.

NHS staff: on their knees

The NHS workers’ case comes as the government refuses to lift the 1% public sector pay cap. But both of these stories show just how much contempt and disdain the Tories have for public sector workers. For NHS staff to have to pay for parking at work in the first place is one thing. But when a private multinational looks set to make millions of pounds out of them, then the government is seriously failing some of our most important workers.

This article was updated at 4.30pm on Monday 17 July to reflect that early reports indicating NHS staff owed Indigo £12.8m were incorrect. It was also updated on 19 July at 3:34pm to highlight the role of austerity in the first paragraph, and at 5:53pm to elaborate on the Welsh government’s role in the second paragraph. 

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